Education Opinion

Response: Teacher Evaluations Need to ‘Support, Not Sort’

By Larry Ferlazzo — November 01, 2014 16 min read
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(This is the first post in a three-part series on this topic)

This week’s question-of-the-week is:

If we don’t want to use student test scores as part of a teacher evaluation, then what are alternatives?

During my nineteen-year community organizing career (before I became a high school teacher eleven years ago), we often discussed a comment that legendary organizer Saul Alinsky supposedly once said: “The price of criticism is a constructive alternative.”

This three-part series is offered in that spirit.

It will share many guest responses, starting today with ones from American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten, California Teachers Association President Dean Vogel, and 2012 National Teacher Of The Year Rebecca Mieliwocki. Comments from readers will be featured in Part Three.

You can listen to a ten-minute conversation I had with Julian Vasquez-Heilig and Ben Spielberg on this topic at my BAM! RadioShow. Julian and Ben’s written responses will appear in Part Two.

In addition, you can find additional resources at:

The Best Resources For Learning About Effective Student & Teacher Assessments

The Best Resources For Learning About The “Value-Added” Approach Towards Teacher Evaluation

Dean Vogel and I worked together and with other educators like Martha Infante to develop the state of California’s recommendations for teacher evaluation processes. You can read them in the state report, Greatness By Design. In the spirit of transparency, I should point out, as I’ve mentioned in previous posts, that I am an active member of the CTA.

You can also find related commentaries at previous posts here under Education Policy Issues.

Now, to today’s guests:

Response From Randi Weingarten

Randi Weingarten is President of The American Federation Of Teachers:

Teacher evaluation should be--and can be--about support and improvement. But when swept up with the testing fixation that plagues our nation, instead of focusing on what teachers need to teach and what children need to learn, evaluations not only miss the mark but become counterproductive. And the starkly different experiences of teachers like Daniel Santos and Martina Ramos drive home both the serious flaws of fixating on testing and the opportunities for teacher growth and improvement and student learning when evaluations are done right.

A week after Houston’s Jackson Middle School celebrated Daniel Santos as teacher of the month, he received notice from the school district that he was being put on a growth plan.

No matter how you measure it, this simply doesn’t add up. But it is happening all too frequently: Highly recognized, good teachers like Santos are receiving poor evaluations based on a grossly flawed algorithm that attempts to predict how a teacher’s students will score in the future by using past test scores and other various assumptions, and then compares that prediction with actual results. Teachers who don’t teach in tested areas can receive scores based on the school score or scores on tests outside their subject areas. The Houston school district uses this deeply flawed methodology for decisions about teacher evaluation, bonuses and termination, yet it is a “black box” system in which the methodology is considered proprietary and confidential. The formula is incomprehensible and secret, based on tests that are not aligned to the curriculum. The results don’t provide any real information on how to improve teaching and learning. And the scores are being used to sort and fire teachers. That’s why Santos and several other Houston teachers are challenging this faulty system in court.

The current testing regime that began under No Child Left Behind and picked up steam through Race to the Top has reduced everything about education to a numbers game. But standardized testing doesn’t measure big-picture learning, critical thinking, resilience, creativity or curiosity, which, after all, are the purposes of public education and ironically what a great teacher develops in kids. The fixation on testing has drained the joy out of learning and has created an accountability system based on punishing teachers, schools and kids rather than helping them improve.

We are seeing a growing movement of parents, teachers and policymakers challenging the harmful effect standardized testing has had on our children, on educators and on public education. According to the recent PDK/Gallup poll, a majority of Americans don’t believe standardized tests help students learn, and more than 60 percent disapprove of using standardized tests to evaluate teachers. No other school system in the world tests every student every year--and none of the countries that lead the world in education uses tests as the primary means to evaluate teachers.

Even the most test-fixated districts have quietly rolled back how much testing counts in teacher evaluations. The District of Columbia Public Schools first decreased the amount standardized tests were to be used in teacher evaluations from 50 percent to 30 percent before announcing a full moratorium on the use of test scores in teacher evaluations as teachers and students make the move to Common Core-aligned assessments.

Those promoting the test fixation argue that they do so because parents need to know how their children are doing. Of course parents need to know--so do kids and teachers--but we need real measures of how kids are doing. A single test score can’t provide that. Classroom-based assessments, written work, student projects and portfolios, and a real dialogue between teachers and parents offer a deeper understanding of student learning. That’s why we strongly advocate for using these multiple measures to portray a real picture of what kids know and can do--one linked to the skills and knowledge they need to be prepared for college, career and life.

There are some districts getting it right. The teachers union and the school district in New Haven, Conn., worked together to chart a new path on teacher evaluation based on teacher professionalism and collaborations--in other words, what schools, students and teachers need to succeed. Student test scores have a role, but they are not the predominant measure of teacher effectiveness. Instead, teacher evaluation is built on multiple measures, including principal and peer observation, frequent feedback, individualized goals for instruction and portfolio assessments of student work. Teachers have access to coaches, can visit other classrooms and have an additional 30 minutes of time in the day to collaborate with other teachers, for professional development and to plan. Teachers needing improvement have access to an intense support plan. Teachers also have opportunities to lead small groups of teachers sharing strategies and solving problems.

Martina Ramos is a kindergarten teacher at Fair Haven School in New Haven who had access to an improvement plan after administrators believed she needed support in behavioral management and instructional practice. Ramos said she was given intense support from administrators and peers with clear goals and expectations set for both her and administrators. Afterward, she said, “I definitely feel more confident when I walk into the classroom. I’m strong, I’m competent, I know what I’m going to teach, and I know I’m going to see results in my students. Honestly, if I did not have those supports in place, I don’t think I would be teaching at this point.”

I visited Ramos’ classroom this year on the fourth day of school. Her group of new kindergartners were completely engaged and focused on her lesson as they worked as a class and then individually. She captivated her students’ interest and created an atmosphere of real joy.

Across the New Haven district, teachers say they’ve seen a dramatic change since the new evaluation system was put in place. They say that, before, they felt isolated and there was a culture of divisiveness. Today, more and more say they feel trusted and empowered, and have built a culture of collaboration. One teacher told me that the evaluation is not used as a “gotcha” moment but instead is used to support her.

Superintendent Garth Harries says the district wanted to design a system that was about supporting teachers, not sorting them--to make it fundamentally about development.

As the famous AFT member Albert Einstein said, not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted. We need to rid ourselves of the testing fixation if we are serious about using teacher evaluations to gauge student learning and help teachers improve their craft.

Response From Dean Vogel

Dean E. Vogel, a 30-year elementary educator and school counselor, is president of the 325,000-member California Teachers Association:

Students Win When Teacher Evaluations Are Done Right

The increasing and harmful focus on high stakes student testing over the past decades has led to growing pressure to base teacher evaluation, as well as hiring and firing decisions on the results of those tests. So-called education experts--especially those espousing a corporate reform agenda--have, in their minds, simplified effective teaching to a “good input equals easily measured output” equation where student test scores tell us pretty much all we need to know about how a teacher is doing.

This past May the first large-scale analysis of teacher evaluation systems based on test scores was released, and it strongly contradicts that view. The study, published in a journal of the American Educational Research Association, confirmed what teachers have been saying all along--there is little or no correlation between quality teaching and evaluation that relies significantly on test scores. This isn’t to say that test scores can’t be integrated into the evaluation process, but not in the simplistic way championed by some advocates. Student test scores can and should be used to inform a teacher about student strengths and weaknesses and to help him or her make adjustments to lessons and teaching techniques accordingly. And a good evaluator can assist a teacher in making those adjustments.

So if test scores aren’t going to tell us how a teacher is doing, how should we evaluate classroom performance? Let’s start with the purpose of evaluation. The California Teachers Association believes an effective teacher evaluation system should inform, instruct and improve teaching and learning; provide educators with meaningful feedback on areas of strength and needed improvement, and ensure fair and evidence-based employment decisions. An effective evaluation system is made up of both formative assessments, focusing on the process of increasing knowledge and professional practice, and of summative assessments, focusing on outcomes. Formative assessment provides teachers with ongoing and supportive feedback and guides what types of professional development will improve their teaching. Summative assessment is an analysis of how a teacher is doing at a particular point in time, and should include multiple sources of evidence about teaching and student learning.

Despite the fervor of those on the test score bandwagon, no single measure can ever capture the complexity of teaching. Multiple measures are critical to any sort of meaningful evaluation system. Evidence of student learning (including effective, teacher-designed assessments directly aligned to the standards and content the teacher is expected to teach), effective use of student data, contributions to the profession, lesson plans and analysis of student work, classroom observations with follow-up feedback, portfolios, teacher set goals and objectives, and professional growth are all measures that can be taken into account in an effective evaluation process.

Obviously this is a little more complicated and time consuming than just comparing this year’s scores to last or to the classroom next door, but it’s worth it. And key to making it work are administrators who are instructional leaders, continuing to grow and learn themselves, and who see their jobs as supporting teachers and classrooms. It does no good to have a new principal who taught high school chemistry for ten years evaluating a veteran kindergarten teacher if that principal is not taking the time to really understand what goes into leading an effective kindergarten class and to be familiar with current resources and techniques that are regarded as useful by other elementary teachers. This isn’t to say that every administrator must be an expert in every subject area content; at the secondary level that would be impossible. But at a minimum they should be familiar with good lesson design and instructional practices for the subject matter and grade level they are observing. One size does not fit all, which is why multiple measures and a collaborative approach to evaluation are so important.

This year the test scores for evaluation fans may have to yield some of their turf whether they like it or not. In California, standardized tests have been shelved during the transition to the new Common Core State Standards, and field testing of the new Core-aligned assessments shows it’s going to take some time for students to adapt to the new kinds of questions and for districts to get up to speed with the technology needed to implement the tests fairly. And no one is suggesting that teacher evaluations be suspended during the transition. I think that’s because most people realize there are other, better ways to assess teaching, ways that are truly meaningful, that will help teachers improve, and that can assist school districts in making sound employment decisions. Teachers welcome evaluation when it’s done right, and we believe a supportive approach based on good feedback and multiple measures is the right way to do it.

Response From Rebecca Mieliwocki

Rebecca Mieliwocki is a seventh grade English teacher in Burbank, California, and the 2012 National Teacher of the year. She has visited over thirty states and nine countries representing our nationa amazing public school teachers. She believes that there is nothing kids can’t learn and accomplish with the help of an enthusiastic, well-prepared, wonderful teacher:

During my travels as National Teacher of the Year, I had the great fortune of observing schools and teachers in Singapore. They have an evaluation system that I was an instant fan of and think has merits worth applying here in the United States.

First, teachers are all invited into the profession and the government pays for their credentialing. Once complete, new teachers are placed at schools and into cohorts led by senior teachers who possess exemplary ratings. These teams select a learning goal for the year for their students and themselves. Their school pays for them to receive training (during the year and in the summer) in whatever pedagogy, methodology, system or tool that they will implement into their teaching to help them reach their goals.

During the year, each teacher teaches 4 hours per day and the remaining 2 hours are spent observing team members’ lessons, planning, meeting with the cohort leader, gathering data on their students, or doing research in preparation for the next day’s lessons. The cohort leader teaches 2 hours per day and the remainder is spent in observations or conferences with their team members.

At the end of the year, the evaluations are completed by the cohort leader and are based on 5 measures: how well the teacher met the pre-determined learning goal (data and student work gathered during the year support this finding), student test scores, classroom observations (by both the cohort leader and the principal), student, and parent feedback. The cohort leader completes roughly 80% of the evaluation and provides a final recommendation to the principal along with a portfolio of data from each of the 5 measures. The principal conducts two observations of his/her own and then meets with the teacher to discuss the portfolio and recommendations. The principal either supports or overrides the cohort leaders decision and the evaluation is complete.

If a teacher receives top marks, they are given a raise and are allowed to stay with their cohort or even apply to become a cohort leader. If they are given a “needs to improve” rating, they get to stay with their cohort, but they are given support from another teacher leader from a different cohort who works specifically with them on their areas of need. Struggling teachers have 1 year to improve or they are asked to leave the profession.

Obviously, our system is not currently set up for this kind of meaningful, intensive teacher evaluation process but there are several things we can do today. First, we should be allowing our best teachers to have some role in supporting and evaluating other teachers. Who better to know what quality teaching IS than another excellent teacher? Who better to provide advice, suggestions, and assistance that is specific and helpful than another teacher? We often delegate that role to principals who may have neither the teaching nor the content experience to be truly effective.

Second, we need to be teaching less and observing, learning and growing more. Not enough of a teacher’s day is spent in collaboration and growth activities. We can change that.

Third, teachers need to be working in small groups with specific yearly learning targets or growth goals. This way, when a teacher is evaluated, we have a much clearer idea of what to look for and how to measure whether or not improvement occurred.

Fourth, we need to include student and parent feedback in evaluation models. Students are truly the experts when it comes to knowing whether or not their teacher works hard, tries, is creative, goes the extra mile, knows his/her subject, gives a variety of assignments or tasks to allow students to show what they know. Why aren’t we asking for their voices in evaluations? If we really care about how good we are, we have to ask our customers what they think.

If we adopt some of what Singapore uses for their teacher evaluation model, I can’t help but believe pretty fervently that a truer, clearer picture of a teacher’s effectiveness would be revealed.

Thanks to Randi, Dean and Rebecca for their contributions!

Please feel free to leave a comment your reactions to the topic or directly to anything that has been said in this post. As I mentioned earlier, I’ll be including readers’ comments in Part Three.

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at lferlazzo@epe.org.When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it’s selected or if you’d prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.

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Student Motivation

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Best Ways To Begin & End The School Year

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Education Week has published a collection of posts from blog -- along with new material -- in an ebook form. It’s titled Classroom Management Q&As: Expert Strategies for Teaching.

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